posted 31 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 3
The knowledge: Victor Newman
Despite being an author, practitioner and expert on knowledge management, Victor Newman dislikes the term and the monotony he believes surrounds the practice. He talks to Sandra Higgison about his career and major influences, and his mission to make knowledge-related activities more entertaining.
One of Victor Newman’s goals is to attack the tedium associated with knowledge management, and the individuals that take themselves and the subject too seriously. He achieves this in our conversation about his career, his role as chief learning officer at Pfizer’s European Research University and the experiences that formed the basis of his book, The Knowledge Activist. During a discussion that touches on military history, alternative rock band The Darkness, rugby tactics and why British actor Jason Statham should play him in the film of his life, Newman describes the major influences that have shaped his knowledge-management thinking and perceptions of the industry as a whole.
Newman maintains that he has always been involved in knowledge management as, over the course of his working life, he has tried to understand what to do with what he knows. His first major encounter with the practice of knowledge management occurred during a project at a global engineering firm. He had been brought in to implement a time-management programme for the company’s employees, but as his interviews across the business progressed, it dawned on him that the project itself was a waste of time. “If you're worrying about time management in the first place, you’re not focusing on the strategy behind the company,” says Newman. “If people act as if they’re in a mess, then they are.” His work there consequently turned to understanding and redirecting the underlying and confused assumptions about the business’s purpose. And so Newman entered the world of knowledge management.
A piece of work in 1999 that significantly shaped his perceptions of knowledge management was an intranet benchmarking exercise that Newman conducted with Geoff Smith, then business development manager, knowledge transformation services at Cap Gemini. Newman has a tendency to put himself on the line and seek out new experiences, which is why the two pioneers deliberately carried out research in an area where there was no existing knowledge. The project and its subsequent success made Newman realise that traditional academic studies were in fact obsolete by the time they were even commissioned. “The economy is moving so fast that real-time research generated by consultants is the only way to keep up.”
This observation inspired the theory of ‘baton passing’, one of Newman’s models for KM that focuses on the timing of knowledge. “Baton passing matches one team’s hunger for knowledge to the knowledge pregnancy of another team that has just achieved a similar goal and has stories to share,” he says. “Their knowledge has to be captured before it decays into constructive fantasy.” Pfizer uses the model as a virtual learning cycle that connects questions to learnings in order that necessary changes in approach can be made. “This affects how we re-define and prepare deliverables,” he says. “We have to keep re-thinking the curriculum for internal education; we can’t stand still.”
Newman cites a number of individuals that have also had an impact on his career. He talks about Edward de Bono, an authority on creative thinking and author of The Mechanism of Mind: “The most important lesson I’ve taken from de Bono is that you can’t get out of a system something that it isn’t designed to give you,” he says. “It’s changed my views in terms of being more realistic and objective about what is achievable without being cynical.” The Learning Organization by Bob Garratt was influential in both its content and in being a slim volume. Closer to home, he praises his former colleague, Kazem Chaharbaghi, head of research and professor of management at the University of East London Business School. He values his relationship with Chaharbaghi for the period when they met monthly to discuss and challenge their most current thoughts on knowledge management.
Norman Dixon, author of On the Psychology of Military Incompetence gives us a clue to Newman’s interest in military history. “I doubt very much that it was intended to be interpreted this way, but what Dixon describes as purely military behaviours can be applied to every civilian organisation,” he says. The value Newman places in the book has given him the idea for a publication he wishes existed: The Journal of Business Incompetence. “I would be the editor, of course,” he says, tongue in cheek. “It would be a slim, quarterly volume and all contributors would be anonymous.” Articles he would like to commission include: ‘what really happened to GE under Jack Welch'; ‘the truth behind lean production'; and ’spin and Sun-Tzu'. This would be a journal not short of subscribers but would require a fearless publisher.
Newman’s own experiences at Pfizer have led to the development of many of his knowledge-management models. “As the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, Hank McKinnell, our chairman and CEO, has made it clear: we have to excel in our intellectual knowledge leadership,” he says. As part of this long-term goal, Newman identifies three core principles: “We have to manage the knowledge that’s worth managing; we have to learn faster than anybody else; and we have to create new forms of knowledge that deliver market leadership.” To help meet these objectives, Newman is currently working with Pfizer colleague, Andrew Hopkins on a new methodology, called BoxLogic, which aims to create alternative strategic discussions.
The idea is based around the nine-dot problem, which sparked the phrase ‘thinking outside of the box'. Traditionally, a group is presented with the challenge of connecting nine dots, which are set in a square, with four straight lines. The only way to achieve this is by extending the lines outside of the box. “If you're trapped in the box, you can't solve the problem,” says Newman. “By taking this analogy, we all need to understand the nature of the box we're in. If the box represents a strategic paradigm, the first step is to characterise it so it can be expressed simply. We must also realise that the existing strategy is not sustainable. Then we need to understand what is keeping us in the box: what constraints are we facing - scientific, intellectual or the allocation of resources? Once we understand the walls, we check to see if our assumptions are still correct – can the dots be moved, for example - and see if there’s a way to break out.”
That BoxLogic is already being shared within Pfizer is a source of immense satisfaction for Newman. He describes the extraordinary high he gets from working at the company: “If you create something new and it has an impact, people are very appreciative,” he says. “You're literally on cloud nine for days. People recognise what you've done, they tear it out of your hands and run with it.” Unfortunately, this enthusiasm does not extend to the knowledge management industry as a whole. Having witnessed the evolution of the practice across a number of industries, Newman holds strong opinions about the form in which KM exists today.
According to Newman, knowledge management has evolved from a variety of management practices, such as total-quality management, total-quality control, just-in-time manufacturing, business-process re-engineering, the extended enterprise and so on. He believes KM has followed a path well trodden by other business strategies, “Consulting practices recognised KM as a buzzword and started promoting it. Businesses said they were doing it anyway while vendors created ‘knowledge-management machines' that soon moved beyond what they said they could do.” The naïve enthusiasm that grew around knowledge management reminds Newman of the cargo-cult psychology: people believed that if they bought into KM they would be better off.
The term ‘knowledge management' itself causes Newman concern. He defines KM as the deliberate management of knowledge to deliver specific outcomes. A major problem he sees within many companies is that they do not know what they want those outcomes to be. “Knowledge management is not an end in itself,” he says. “People need to complete the sentence, ‘I'm managing knowledge so that...'. You have to be clear about what you want, otherwise how do you know what you're working towards?” He suggests knowledge ‘creation' or ‘building' as possible alternatives to ‘management', which he believes sends the wrong message. “The term alienates people,” he says. “Especially as KM is still automatically associated with IT.” His dislike for this association is obvious throughout his book and our conversation. “I'd call it IT cynicism. There are better questions for companies to address with KM than IT.”
Looking to the future, Newman has already considered the changes the pharmaceutical industry is likely to go through, and has plans underway to meet these challenges head on. Working with GlaxoSmithkline and AstraZeneca, he is involved in the development of a new type of MBA at the Open University Business School. “We need to build a new cohort of leaders for industry,” he says. “This is a great opportunity to move towards an MBA where eventually 50 per cent of the curriculum focuses on where we're going rather than where we've been. Students will take tools, customise and apply them to real situations in real time. The aim is for the student to come out qualified while already delivering change, and for a new practitioner-academic to emerge.”
Alternative ambitions for Newman exist on the rugby pitch. Inspired by his 11-year-old son, Thomas, Newman recently qualified as a rugby coach and referee. He hopes that Thomas will ultimately play for England. In the meantime, Newman has been attempting to relate rugby tactics to workplace innovation and value creation. While line-outs in the corridor or scrums in brainstorming sessions may not become the norm, Newman’s colleagues should perhaps be wary if he ever decides to open a meeting with a performance of the New Zealand haka.
Indeed, Newman’s work for the immediate future will follow a not dissimilar theme, as he is developing a concept with Mike Bayler, co-author of Promiscuous Customers, on tribal dynamics. “We have some wacky ideas around how we can use internal tribes to build new value within organisations,” he explains. “A tribe would be created that would possess innovative practices way ahead of everyone else in the organisation. People would be drawn to it by its identity and performance, and their aspirations to be part of it would lead them to copy the tribe’s work.” Such tribes would replace traditional communities of practice as a key activity for driving change. Following an approach that has distinguished most of Newman’s work so far, he has seen an opportunity here, he will take the tool, customise it, try it out, and if it works, will give it away quickly as he moves onto the next thing. As he says, in this business you are constantly aware that the patient is always waiting.
And if you're wondering what Newman thinks about The Darkness, his favourite song is ‘Growing on me’. “They do everything Queen did in one track but better,” he says. “They have that British deprecating humour of not taking themselves too seriously while managing to give an over-the-top performance that isn't too embarrassing.” Characteristics, it seems, that Newman may be trying to instil within the knowledge-management industry and its practitioners. Now, how could anybody say KM isn't entertaining?
1. Newman, V., The Knowledge Activist (Capstone Publishing, 2002)
2. De Bono, E., The Mechanism of the Mind (Jonathan Cape, 1969)
3. Garratt, B., The Learning Organization (Gower Publishing, 1987)
4. Dixon, N., F., On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (Jonathan Cape, 1976)
5. Sun-Tzu is author of The Art of War. The book was written over 2,500 years ago
and is widely regarded as the oldest military treatise in the world.
6. Adams, J.L., Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas (Norton, 1979)
7. Bayler, M. & Stoughton, D., Promiscuous Customers: Delivering Value in Digital Markets (Capstone Publishing, 2001)